Egyptians Lose Hope For Obama's Change In Direction

Just a few months into his first term in office, President Obama traveled to Egypt where he delivered a groundbreaking speech to the Muslim world from the campus of Cairo University. Egyptians are recalling that speech and their expectations for Obama's second term.

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Nearly four years ago, President Barack Obama was a new face with new promise and a middle name Hussein that resonated throughout the Muslim world. In a speech at Cairo University, he promised a new beginning for relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But as Obama begins his second term, the hope that so many in Egypt had for a new direction under Obama is largely gone. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In the summer of 2009, Obama spoke to a packed auditorium of students, journalist, intellectuals and regime officials from the government of former President Hosni Mubarak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm grateful for your hospitality and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I'm also proud to carry with me the goodwill of theAmerican people and a greeting of peace for Muslim communities in my country. Assalamu alaikum.

FADEL: He went to talk about a fresh start at a time of great tension between the Islamic world and the United States. He promised to be a fair broker in a peace process between Israel and Palestine. He spoke of freedom and democracy and a peaceful relationship after years of a with-us-or-against-us attitude towards the Muslim world, viewed through the prism of terrorism.

Hend Hesham a young engineering student said she sat in the audience inspired by his words.

HEND HESHAM: I used, actually, to believe that the first African-American president would - he had a different political stance, especially towards Middle Eastern. But just a few years later, my view point has been totally changed, especially, you know, after the revolution.

FADEL: Hesham says in this new Egypt, after a revolt that ousted a dictator, she feels let down. She heard Obama promise to work towards peace between Israel and Palestine, but during a punishing offensive against the Gaza Strip in November, she watched Obama repeat that Israel has the right to defend itself, but never condemned the excessive force against Palestinians.

She heard Obama tell her and others that the future was in their hands. But when Egypt's revolution began in the cold days of January 2011, it took the administration too long, she says, to side with demonstrators calling for freedom.

HESHAM: Now I understand that the foreign policy of the United States doesn't actually depend on one president, you know. It's affected by the interest groups and the lobbies in the country itself.

FADEL: Hend Hesham is not alone. A Gallup poll conducted in April of 2012 showed that Egyptians' approval ratings for the U.S. leadership has dropped by nearly half since Obama gave his speech. And as Egypt lurches toward what they hope will be a democracy, many view the U.S. leadership with suspicion, some blaming the U.S. president for being too soft on Islamists now in power, others accusing Washington of trying to undermine the new religiously inspired leadership.

But in general, many Egyptians say they had too much to deal with at home. The economy is faltering. New parliamentary elections are expected in the spring, and the nation remains polarized between Islamists and the self-described liberals and secularists on this path to a new and still-undefined Egypt.

HUSSEIN HANAFY: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Hussein Hanafy, a government employee, puts it like this: I'm not paying attention to Obama's inauguration, but Obama and the United States shouldn't get involved in Egypt's internal affairs. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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